April 3rd, 2008
Welcome to Cult On The Cheap month, where we celebrate the DIY outsiders who maxed out their credit cards, sold their plasma, participated in medical experiments, or did whatever else they could to scrape together the paltry sum needed to share their irrepressible vision with the world. Many of these Cinderella stories are a master class in resourceful and innovation, with first-time filmmakers stretching budgets so shoestring that they wouldn't cover craft services on other cheapo independent productions. In the absence of money, these scrappy little movies made the most of things that are free—making bold choices in the editing room, taking advantage of viewers' imaginations, and advancing big ideas over expensive special effects.
Kevin Smith's Clerks is not one of those movies.
Clerks may be the only $25,000 movie ever made that leaves people wondering where all that money went. There's the film stock, of course, but next week's NCC entry, Primer, was shot on 16mm a decade later for a third of the cost. Presumably, the surplus was spent on hookers and blow, because there isn't much to the film—a couple of locations, a small troupe of rank amateurs, no complicated setups, and a mise-en-scène that's only a hair more sophisticated than a day's worth of surveillance-camera footage. And it's not as if Smith's ideas were carrying the day, either: Aside from a thoroughly juvenile treatment of male sexual hang-ups, the film is just a crude assemblage of comic vignettes. Cut one away, and nothing's lost but a few minutes off the running time, which may or may not bother you, depending on how much you'd miss throwaway gags about an egg-obsessed guidance counselor or a virulent pro-gum lobbyist.
So why was Clerks such a sensation? Back in 1994—the first and last time I saw the film until this week—I had no idea. It was just after college, and I was in the perfect mindset to appreciate the film: Much like Dante Hicks, a reasonably intelligent guy mired in a dead-end job, I was logging time doing grunt work at a stone quarry outside Toledo, Ohio. (This is what that Bachelor's Degree in Literature will get you, kids: $8 per hour shoveling limestone sand from under the conveyor belts.) Whenever I had the chance, I'd drive an hour north to Ann Arbor to take in all the arthouse cinema I could (Hoop Dreams, Oleanna, Spanking The Monkey, et al.), and I remember heading up there on a weeknight to see Clerks, knowing full well that I'd pay for it in the morning. The film had come out of Sundance with tremendous momentum, and earned even greater cachet by winning its David vs. Goliath battle with the MPAA, which originally slapped it with an NC-17 for foul language alone. Reviews were good, the theater was packed, and…
I don't think I laughed more than a couple of times. And for the past 14 years, all I could remember about the film was the pick-up hockey game on the roof and the big punchline about Dante's ex-girlfriend's encounter in the bathroom. In the years that have followed, the cult of Kevin Smith has waxed and waned but mostly endured, spinning off into comic books, diaries, and concert appearances, several well-trafficked websites (and many other fan sites), and other assorted merchandise and pop-cultural flotsam. His "View Askewniverse" builds on a mythology not unlike that of the Star Wars movies, only much, much punier—akin to George Lucas basing two sequels and three prequels around the goofy creatures in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Yet for all his lingering deficiencies as a filmmaker, Smith has been expert at finding a cult audience and nurturing it like a delicate flower, one strong enough to weather the cold winter frost of Jersey Girl.
So again, why was Clerks such a sensation? Kevin Smith, obviously. There have been plenty of inspiring DIY success stories in independent film past and present, but Smith remains a special case. He's a true outsider: a Jersey boy who's down-to-earth and fundamentally unpretentious; who likes Star Wars, comic books, and dirty jokes; and who could never be mistaken for a Hollywood phony. Throughout the years, he's been remarkably accessible to friends and foes alike, unchecked by the usual phalanx of agents and publicists who keep artistes away from the common man; say something about Kevin Smith, and damned if the man himself doesn't turn up, Rumpelstiltskin-like, on the message boards to mix it up. Even this non-fan finds him likeable, and trusts that his "one of us" persona isn't a pose.
It isn't as catchy as "May the Force be with you," but there's a line in Clerks that defines Smith's philosophy in a nutshell: "Title does not dictate behavior." As spoken by Randal (Jeff Anderson), the more unruly of two clerks running adjacent convenience and video stores, the line is meant to inspire his mild-mannered cohort Dante (Brian O'Halloran) to break the rules a little. Clerks are supposed to be subservient to the customer, but Randal isn't one to believe that the customer is always right; just because the customers aren't logging time behind the counter at a video store doesn't mean they're superior to the hump who is. And if, say, a mother annoys Randal by asking him about some kid's video for her daughter, he isn't shy about ordering Ass-Worshiping Rim-jobbers in front of them. Dante, on the other hand, is so used to absorbing the petty abuses of his customers that he's come to believe that being a clerk is his sorry lot in life.
"Title does not dictate behavior" also helps explain the Clerks phenomenon, which now seems as revolutionary in its own way as Reservoir Dogs did two years before. Once the province of earnest, buttoned-down indies and imports, the arthouse seemed too hoity-toity a place for movies this rude and ill-behaved. But Clerks, with an assist from the Weinsteins, muscled its way into theaters anyway, creating an audience that hadn't existed previously, and challenging people's expectations of what an art film could be. The odd thing about Smith is that unlike Quentin Tarantino—who legitimized genre pictures for arthouse consumption—he's really just opened the door for himself. It's possible that mainstream American comedies have gotten cruder in the Smith era, but it's hard to think of a single Clerks-inspired independent film that has made it past the straight-to-DVD market.
Plot-wise, there isn't much of consequence to Clerks. It takes place over a day in the life of Dante and Randal, and the only story arc concerns Dante's screwed-up relationships. He's currently seeing Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), a ball-buster who castigates him about not doing more with his life, but is devoted enough to bring him lasagna and make him one of only three men she's bedded. (Unless he cares to count the 36 others she's blown, including "Snowball," the bearded goofball who likes to taste his own ejaculate after a BJ.) But Dante can't stop thinking about Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer), an ex-girlfriend who appears poised to marry an Asian design major. Will Dante keep chasing Caitlin, whom he's idealized out of proportion to the real thing, or settle for Veronica, who ignites his Madonna-whore complex?
The sexual politics in Clerks are dubious, to put it mildly. It's true that men often have a hard time dealing with their girlfriends' sexual history—a subject that Smith tackled more thoroughly with Chasing Amy, if not necessarily with more maturity. (Noah Baumbach's underrated Mr. Jealousy, made the same year as Amy, did the job with a deftness and wit that seems beyond Smith's capabilities.) But the women in Clerks are broadly sketched, in part because the film spends so much time spinning its wheels with Dante and Randal (and Jay and Silent Bob, for that matter) that it doesn't have time for them. Dante's choice is between The Whore Who Brings Him Lasagna or The Whore Who Fucks The Dead Guy In The Bathroom. To me, the latter is a prime example of sacrificing too much for a joke; rather than find a more subtle way for Dante to deal with his romantic past and present, Smith makes the choice easy by turning his ex-girlfriend into an unwitting necrophiliac.
As a portrait of male friendship, Clerks isn't much better. The dynamic between Dante and Randal isn't that far off from buddies like Dane Cook and Dan Fogler in Good Luck Chuck: The hero is a base, sex-addled doofus, but compared to his Neanderthal best buddy, he's the sensitive guy who deserves our affection. O'Halloran and Anderson aren't skilled enough as actors to serve as more than mouthpieces for Smith's lowbrow gags and bits of philosophy, and they often choke on his reams of dialogue. (Smith has always been praised for his tart screenplays, but to me, he's a writer much too in love with his own voice; his films are littered with scenes that are allowed to drag on several beats longer than they should.) That said, even Anderson can't trample over this fine monologue about the destruction of the Death Star in Return Of The Jedi:
As Star Wars theory goes, that speech is second only to Patton Oswalt's recent riff on the prequels ("At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas With A Shovel"). It also establishes Smith as a champion of blue-collar types like the poor roofers, aluminum-siders, and other wage slaves who paid the price for their boss' tyranny. A second viewing didn't bring me around to liking Clerks, but Smith's scrappy, workaday roots provide the film's best touches: filling up the newspaper rack with Asbury Park Press papers stolen from the box; the shoe-polish sign assuring customers that the store is open in spite of the gummed-up shutters; the litter box set on the countertop; the pile of change for coffee-and-paper buyers to serve themselves; and the fact that guys like Dante will do anything to keep people from disrupting the numb, dead-eyed inertia that propels him from one day to the next. It's when the movie starts running off at the mouth that things go awry.